Breadth of a Salesman
The many facets of Sean "Puffy" Combs
By Franklin Soults
SEPTEMBER 7, 1999: Puff Daddy is the biggest celebrity in hip-hop -- which is to say one of the biggest pop stars alive. Yet face to face, the real-life Sean "Puffy" Combs is surprisingly slight and unprepossessing. For all his six-figure Bentleys and seven-figure hits, this rapper, producer, and corporate CEO promotes his second album, Forever (Bad Boy), as if he were pitching a shoestore's latest line or a restaurant's daily specials.
"We have a real diverse selection of cuts," says Puffy, employing the first-person plural like a loyal employee, not a presumptuous potentate. "There's the good, the bad, the ugly, the happy, the sad, the spiritual side, all those diverse aspects of my personality."
It's mid August in Ohio. Puffy and I are sitting on a small sofa in a tiny, messy back office at Joy of Music, a neighborhood record store in a struggling black suburb of Cleveland, one of Puffy's many stops during a nationwide promotional tour. I'm trying hard to focus on his softly drifting voice as his aides buzz around us like drones around a queen bee and as Puffy interrupts himself to take five-second calls on the cell phone resting permanently in his palm. Yet this surrogate shoe salesman stays on top of it all: aides, interview, phone, Jennifer Lopez sitting in the corner (!), whatever. It suggests a rare gift, one that an ADD specialist has called "an overly wide field of attention."
Puffy makes an understatement of the expert's claim that this neurological dysfunction can often be turned into an asset. The 29-year-old entertainer is not only the founder and head of Bad Boy Records, he also runs a chain of upscale soul-food restaurants, the Sean John line of clothing, the glossy lifestyle magazine Notorious, a recording studio, a nonprofit charity organization, and maybe in time -- according to a long, sly cover profile in the August GQ -- an NBA franchise. Providing the financing are the hits he and a small slew of R&B and rap artists like Faith Evans, the Lox, Mase, and the late Notorious B.I.G. have scored at Bad Boy, a label Puffy created in 1994 under the 50/50 auspices of Arista Records. According to GQ, those profits peaked from March to September 1997, an unprecedented 25-week streak during which either a Puff Daddy song or one he'd produced held the #1 spot on the singles chart.
So if he comes off like a shoe salesman, it's probably because he's calculated that it's beneficial to his image (which is not the same thing as saying his entire image is calculated). It's just one strategy he's using to woo once again a segment of the public that, for disparate reasons, seems to have written him off lately. Those who criticize Puffy's parties and jewels and Bentleys are probably the same types who criticized Elvis's hair and clothes and Cadillacs: establishment straights threatened by anything deemed "vulgar," especially now that it's gone beyond entertainment and entered the realm of entrepreneurial leadership. But others claim that what's being vulgarized is hip-hop itself. For them, Puffy's unadulterated Top 40 samples, limited rapping skills, and taste for "big hankie moments" (GQ) all spell major sellout. Even the crowd outside the record store -- hip-hop's ghetto keepers and creators -- is surprisingly modest in size, with people acting more like excited curiosity seekers than avid fans.
Naturally, Puffy says there's no sellout. "I'm a driving force, I'm a leader in hip-hop, that's the bottom line. . . . 'Sell out,' that's silly right there. I already got enough money. I ain't gotta sell out to get any more money."
I suggest the answer might beg the question, so he offers a refinement. "The thing about hip-hop, if it ain't real, people ain't gonna buy it; if it's real, people gonna buy it. I mean, people bought my album [the 1997 solo debut No Way Out] white and black. It's not like I was just getting played on the hot Top 40 station. I get played on every mix [radio] show, every mix tape . . . and also some of my stuff crosses over. I make music for millions and millions of people to like. I don't make music for just a couple of people who are the cool, cool people to like. That's not selling out, that's making good music for a wide audience of people to appreciate."
Even so, proving that he can "be real" is an explicit reason for undertaking his tour. "There's just so much press and hype surrounding me," he says earlier in the day at a brief press conference at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland. "I wanted to get back to the base with this new album . . . so I've started off with this 30-city tour to visit all my markets, not just the top five like Detroit and Chicago, but everywhere, to get back with the people who support me."
If visiting a record store in the 'hood is part of that strategy, the press conference at the Rock Hall seems quite another. Yet despite the Hall of Fame's reputation as a white institution, the majority of local reporters, TV crews, photographers, and assorted members of the music and civic community on hand are black. Drawn from Cleveland's sizable African-American middle class, these sober professionals might be some of Puffy's sharpest critics, attacking from either the vulgarian or the sellout tack depending on their cultural politics. Yet Puffy quickly plays to them, and they close ranks. When a black reporter asks him about his use of the word "nigger" -- the only confrontational question proffered -- he claims it as his cultural right: "I'm gonna be real . . . though I wouldn't advise persons from any other racial or ethnic group to employ it." Murmurs of consent ripple through the room. As for his high-profile familiarity with Donald Trump, he counters that an acquaintance isn't necessarily a friendship, and anyway, the comparison between the two is inappropriate because, "We are from two different worlds." Again, the murmurs of approval. I haven't felt like such a self-conscious outsider at a hip-hop event in years.
Something of the risks Puffy has taken is suggested on Forever, an album that also attempts to "be real" -- that is, to assert his blackness -- while still appealing to his wide audience, white and black. Whether insiders admit it or not, the opposition between being "real" and crossing over has been the major internal tension in hip-hop since Run-D.M.C. declared they were "Proud To Be Black" and proud to "Walk This Way" on two sides of the same breakthrough album (Raising Hell, from 1986). Puffy has risen to the challenge with his indomitable work ethic, his instinctive talent, and, of course, that over-wide field of attention. But that isn't quite enough to make the album work. In fact, my guess is, he never stood a chance.
As Puffy contends, the album is an improved sequel to No Way Out: "Lyrically it's better, performance-wise it's better, production-wise it's better." Over its 19 cuts in 75 minutes, Puffy drops a wider array of rap cadences than before, deepens his rhyme skills, even keeps up on one track with the brittle Chicago speed rapper Twista. At the same time, his voracious co-producers ease off the obvious samples and lay into beats ranging from hard and stark to obscenely plush, many with syncopated sound effects that would impress a Pink Floyd fan. Or maybe even an RZA fan: "Journey Through Life" loops a short haunting sample of an old Al Green hit the way Wu-Tang's producer once did for Ghostface Killah.
Unfortunately, the album also features the same high body-count formulas employed by gangsta rappers everywhere. Puffy's been there before, of course, but here the hard stuff dominates the album's long center, blasting its credibility beyond repair. Partly it's a matter of who Puffy is -- why would he need to pop or rob anybody? -- but partly it's the inescapable truth that few mortals can bear the weight of this overwrought form. At Bad Boy, the task used to be carried by Biggie Smalls, an all-too-mortal genius whose shoulders were just broad enough to bear it, but Puffy can't revive that murder victim no matter how long he continues to list Biggie as "executive co-producer" or dredges up Biggie's voice on studio outtakes (the one featured here is just okay).
The opening and closing sections of the album are far better, yet the material is still tainted by association. "Best Friend," for example, is as audacious as any hankie-grabbin', Top 40-samplin' slab of hip-pop he's ever cut, swiping Christopher Cross's 1980 mushtrocity "Sailing" for a love song to Puffy's best friend, Jesus Christ. Yet its proximity to the gat attacks undercuts any notion that Puffy was ever transformed by "The power of the Truth . . . shootin' through my Timbalands."
At best, the album offers up a short string of potential hits for those mix tapes and dance floors that are Puffy's rightful home: it's where that Jesus song would be redeemed, and also the loose and funky "Do You Like It . . . Do You Want It . . . ," the traditionally soulful "Satisfy You," the buzzing Public Enemy reprise "P.E. 2000." In fact, the three-to-five-minute format (as opposed to album length) might be the only place that most hip-hop can regularly sustain its awesome contradictions. If there's no bigger pop music out there, that's partly because nothing else claims to speak for a distrustful, disenfranchised minority -- not just blacks, but ghetto blacks -- and at the same time to speak to the entire nation. It's a near-impossible task. At moments, Bad Boy may have achieved it, but Puff Daddy alone probably never can.
Instead, he will always have to settle for the kind of pop payoff that's waiting for him upstairs at the Rock Hall after the press conference. A table is set up for him to sign autographs in the Hall's huge lobby, and stretched out before it, squealing with glee and trembling with anticipation, are hundreds and hundreds of teens and twentysomethings, male and female, black and white, a middle-class swath that might well include the nieces and nephews of the reporters downstairs. To grasp the diversity and complexity of their relationship to their idol, you'd need a field of attention half as big as all America.
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